Skip to content

GOG works in mysterious ways

Good Old Games

(Original image source.)

Good Old Games seems to be going from strength to strength. This unusual digital distribution service has won over major publishers in recent months, allowing it to reintroduce classic titles to an appreciative older audience as well as a whole new generation of gamers. The recent release of Master of Orion, Master of Orion 2 and the beloved Master of Magic, in particular, should be applauded for reminding everyone of the fantastic work done by SimTex Software‘s Steve Barcia, one of gaming’s forgotten designers. It’s also left many a gamer hoping for more titles from Microprose’s great catalogue.

(Dare one hope for Arnold Hendrick’s Darklands, fully patched up and DOSbox-ready?)

All’s not peachy keen, however.

GOG had to pull three Codemasters titles from its service last year because of licensing issues. It’s hard to blame GOG for this since the rights holder belatedly realised it didn’t actually have the full rights for Colin McRae Rally 2005, TOCA Race Driver 3 and Operation Flashpoint. In truth, there was little harm done as customers who had already purchased those games from GOG could download them as usual. This was a minor issue and well handled.

However, GOG does have a messy PR problem due to the way it goes about its business. A key selling point of the service has always been its games are guaranteed to be DRM-free. This meant games which originally shipped with DRM are stripped of it before being put on sale. While this extraordinarily brave policy left GOG very vulnerable to piracy, it was a policy that was universally hailed by gamers tired of intrusive and draconian DRM schemes. Here was a digital distribution service that got it. Here was a digital distribution service that understood customers do not take kindly to being treated like potential thieves after they have paid for a product. Here was a digital distribution service that truly deserved gamer support.

The problem was no one knew how GOG went about removing the DRM. The details are troubling to say the least.

In at least two documented instances, GOG used modified cracks obtained from the warez scene to strip out DRM from games. When this was pointed out in its forums, GOG staff responded thusly:

As some of you already know, GOG does not always get access to game masters. In this respect, we regularly have to resort various approaches to ensure we can deliver a DRM-free game that works on modern operating systems. We have always conducted these programming works in accordance with the relevant rights owners. Every game we sell has been approved by the latter.

That’s sufficiently vague that it’s not an admission of guilt but neither is it a flat denial.

The bottom line here is the practice is indefensible and it must stop. GOG cannot claim a moral high ground in taking a consumer-friendly DRM-free stance when it actively seeks out pirate-authored cracks to ensure its games are DRM-free. The pirates are the ones consumers have to thank for the obnoxious DRM schemes in the first place.

The fact these cracks are used with the acknowledgement and approval of copyright holders only makes the situation worse. The copyright holders are having it both ways as they are both proponents of anti-consumer DRM in games and unethically, if indirectly, profiting from the work of pirates.

(Comically, the pirates are apparently indignant GOG and the rights holders are making money with their cracks.)

This is not the first time a pro-DRM company has resorted to pirate-authored software, of course. Ubisoft notably used a crack to circumvent its own DRM but then one has come to expect thoughtless DRM-related policies and behaviour from that company in recent years.

This situation with GOG is particularly disappointing because gamers could previously point to it as a sterling example of how things ought to be done. As things stand now, though, gamers could not be faulted if they lost faith in GOG. To avoid that, GOG must maintain its DRM-free stance and it must stop using pirate-authored cracks. If this means some games cannot be sold through its service, so be it. If this means some games may have to be pulled from its catalogue, so be it. It would be sickening if the one digital distribution service that took a firm stand against DRM did so in an unethical fashion.

Posted in Games, Good Old Games.

3 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. J.B. says

    I was with you up until the point where you divulged into a long rant regarding your personal opinions on ‘pirates’.

    Something that you must understand, is that it attempting to label everyone involved as a ‘pirate’ would be a very ignorant line of thought. The situation is far more complex than attempting to draw a proverbial line in the sand, and declaring each instance to be either simply ‘ethical’, or ‘unethical’.

    There is nothing unethical about authoring, distributing, or using a crack that circumvents certain DRM restrictions. A vast amount of people over the years have legally used fixed-exe’s (what you could call ‘cracks’) in order to use the software that they legitimately purchased more conveniently, without the hassle of digging out an optical disc.

    If I had the choice between a virgin master copy of the game given to them by the publishers, and a copy that GoG cracked themselves, I think that choice would be obvious. However, I will not condemn them for doing what they felt necessary to provide the people with DRM-free software.

    The difference between a pirate, and being ‘ethical’, is simply how you obtain the software. Not what is done to it. So long as the original creators are receiving compensation for their work, then that’s enough to satisfy me.

  2. Gobi says

    These online debates about copyright, DMCA, DRM, cracks and pirates always frustrate me because there doesn’t seem to be any way to discuss them without being reduced to either a pro-DMCA corporate tool or pro-piracy. A scant week after I wrote the above post, the debate was reignited with predictable results when it was revealed Max Payne 2 on Steam was the cracked version (which was quickly and quietly replaced with no explanation offered by either Rockstar or Valve).

    While I’m sympathetic towards end-users who need to use cracks to be able to play the games they’ve bought, I remain perfectly willing to condemn companies who surreptitiously use, distribute and profit from cracks.

    Make no mistake, I like the concept of GOG. I really want these old games to remain available and I really want games, old or otherwise, to be DRM-free. Despite that, I’m still very uncomfortable about supporting a company that dances around the question of how DRM is removed from the titles on its DRM-free service.

    The key issue here is GOG was not letting its customers know. I would have been happier if Marcin Iwinski and Michal Kicinski just came right out and stated what GOG’s official stance was on distributing and profiting from cracked versions of games. If it’s perfectly legal in Cyprus (where GOG was registered for undisclosed business reasons), there’s no need to do it on the sly. They could even append “because we use the finest cracks” right next to “DRM-free” on the top of the GOG front page to let customers decide whether they want to support GOG’s way of doing business.

    Given recent developments, this may no longer be an issue for GOG but I suspect we’ll see the same arguments play out with other digital distribution services before long.

  3. Fuzzy says

    Sorry for the absolute necropost here, but hey, if I can still find your blog, then I can still comment on it, anytime I want (unless it’s locked, obviously). Because the day I read it, it’s new to me :)

    Gobi, I still must disagree with your harsh stance against companies “who surreptitiously use, distribute and profit from cracks.” I’d be more likely to agree that the practice is questionable, if not completely ironic given that such companies would seem to be backpedaling away from the decision to implement DRM technology in the first place. At least generally speaking.

    The problem I have is that we’re talking about IP owners doing what they want with their code. Even though the scene may take credit for a crack, that doesn’t give them any actual ownership over said IP. So somebody excised the code that checks if the CD is in the drive. That somehow gives them rights over the rest of the code? At the end of the day, it still belongs to the companies that created it.

    There are any number of reasons why DRM made it into a product in the first place. There are typically several companies involved in the creation and publication of a game. It could very well be that a dev studio was forced to include DRM because the big house publisher required it. Then, perhaps years later, the devs could find themselves in a position where they don’t have the master code anymore. Sometimes that stuff gets lost.

    In which case, you may have an IP owner say to themselves, “hey, we want to release a DRM-free version of our game, but we don’t have the code anymore. What to do, what to do?” Guess what, very likely there’s a crack out there already. The crack consists primarily of their own code anyway. And what’s been added really, props or shouts? The scene doesn’t deserve any credit they haven’t already taken. And why should the devs credit them anyway? “Hey, thanks guys for assisting the rip-off of our product by creating a cracked EXE that we didn’t ask you to. By the way, we’re going to use our own code that you guys monkeyed with so we can sell the game we slaved over making for months or years. Do we owe you anything?”

    C’mon, get real! It’s almost like thanking a car thief once your car gets recovered.

    It’s my humble opinion that IP owners owe the scene nothing if they choose to re-purpose an existing crack for their own product. At best they can call it a wash. And I mean at best. It’s not like such a crack can’t be created at any point in the future. But why reinvent the wheel? It’s there… the functional code is 100% theirs… it works… let’s use it.

    I’ve used cracked EXEs myself, for both piracy as well as for a legally purchased game for reasons of convenience. I may have done things in my life I shouldn’t have, but I’m not on any kind of high horse that makes me feel entitled to do so. And it’s pretty obvious to me that IP owners have rights and are entitled to exercise them. I’ve been glad that a cracked EXE exists when I’ve looked for one, but that doesn’t cloud my judgement. Even thieves know that theft is wrong.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.